POST BY DAN ZEMPER (Team Trainer, Coach, And Owner of Zemper Restorative Therapy in Traverse City, Michigan.)
PART ONE OF TWO PARTS
Tuesday January 25, 2011
Well, it’s time for me to attempt stating my impressions from this trip that has just been completed. I knew this time would come, and at the halfway point of the journey, I knew that I would never likely be able to convey what it has meant to me. Still, here in the comfort of my own living room and before I get back to the everyday routine, I’ll try to make my one attempt to recap my experiences.
Forty hours is a long time, and I’ve never traveled that far to one destination in one sitting. I never take the direct route though, so I shouldn’t be too surprised at having to play hop-scotch across Europe on my way to Ethiopia. Once I made it, I found that I had missed an event that I wish I could have been part of. The Entoto mountains above Addis Ababa are where the top runners of the country come to perform long training runs. I regret missing the opportunity to experience running there with the team. Following a troop of baboons would have been fun as well. Something famously experienced by out team that day.
The short-comings were short lived though. I was thrown into the whirlwind the next day, as I expected. We began the run and I assumed the role of coach / therapist for our combined team of American and Ethiopian runners. This also included running the crew aboard the support bus. This part of my duties was to make certain that the runners had what they needed at any time, providing the water stops and food stops on the “regular” agreed upon schedule, as best we could. Plus, keeping an eye on them for their safety, as we were usually their only escort along some very busy roads.
By the second day of the run, my routine fell into waking up between 4 and 5 am, helping with breakfast, then loading the bus, making sure we had the supplies that were needed for each day. We’d then see the runners off for the day, and perform the duties as required throughout the days’ test. All while taking in the scenery as best I could from the windows of the bus. Occasionally I could get out and run as well, and that was a welcome change to be in the open, running in Africa.
After the run was over for the day with temperatures reaching well above what we are used to, we’d reach our hotel. Timothy Young, who so aptly and efficiently ran all of the logistics for the whole program, would find us the best available and affordable. Sometimes that meant a reasonably nice place that would rank on the lowest end of the scale in the states. Other times, well I’ve stayed in some absolute pits in the US, but this was, an experience. I soon learned that coffee and beer are a good combination. The alcohol would calm me after the rush of the day – so far. The coffee would keep me on my feet for the work yet ahead. Before or after dinner I would begin working on those runners that needed help with injuries and aggravations. I’d also oversee and advise on first aid for blisters, etc, that would crop up each day. It’s interesting to think back to those days of working on the runners on motel beds, patios and park benches. I still have to wonder what the people watching might have thought. At the time I wasn’t too concerned. When I could, I would find a place to help the others someplace where I had a view, so that I could take in more of the fine country. Usually by 8 or 9 pm my workday would end, and I would prepare for the next day.
So that is how my days went on a regular basis. It was very busy, a literal whirlwind. Challenging, and even though trying at times, I knew all the while that it was rewarding. Unfortunately I became ill the last two days of the run and was unable to be with the team. I felt as though it alienated me, as I was physically unable to do anything, and this was a very physical undertaking. Unfortunately it was at the climactic finale of the whole event and I watched from the sidelines, sick. Fortunately it was at the end and this didn’t happen in the middle of the whole affair when my services and specialties were truly in demand.
When we started out on this escapade; I found myself working against an Ethiopian norm. A laid back outlook on life, where “now” means maybe in the next hour. Anyone who has been coached by me, knows what I think now means. This presented a real challenge from the bus driver to the helpers on the bus, (translator, Ethiopian runners not running that day, driver and his helper). We soon established a rapport, and because they are such a gracious people as a whole, they tolerated me and what I insisted needed to be done, and when. They learned quickly, and to their credit came to understand me better than I likely did them. They learned how to make peanut butter sandwiches, lots of ‘em. We cut up pineapple and oranges on plastic plates balanced on our laps while bouncing and careening along on a moving bus, dodging donkey carts, cattle, goats and people.
At first, the Ethiopians were relatively timid around us, a bit scared they later admitted. Soon we became very good friends with mutual respect for each other. Those on the bus became so proficient that when I went out to join the run the day before I came down with the bug, they would not let anyone else help out in running the operation. They had it, and they knew how to do it. That was so good to see. They had come around to understand the necessity of the timing, the safety concerns, the preparations, and they ran it like clockwork. Made me feel a bit useless in the end as I sat in a hotel room, the self proclaimed “ringmaster of the flying circus”. I worked to recover while they ran the show and did so admirably. I am proud of them, and that isn’t even something that I went there to accomplish. They, being young and inexperienced in this sort of thing, and in many aspects of life in general, stepped up and got the job done when they were needed most. Egga, Finet, Bizuayehu, Meroan, Zinashe, Said; they all did so well, and I wasn’t able to thank them enough for it.
I also want to express thanks to Ann Stanton and Jacob Wheeler. Both journalists who were along to document the whole affair, they jumped right in with helping me on the bus when things were really crazy in the first days. I don’t know if I could have made it through without their very willing help as we worked out the routine early on.
This brings me to my impressions of the trip as a whole. (no really, I haven’t even gotten there yet) The scenery was as expected, dramatic. The countryside is incredibly diverse, and we only saw central and southern Ethiopia. Mountains rising up from flat dusty plains. expansive lakes stretching on for miles and miles, surrounded by seemingly dry landscape. Rolling hills with vistas that would draw you in if you weren’t constantly on the move. Steep hills, twisting narrow roads, false banana, real banana, and coffee plants. A resort on a mountain top, with circular huts / rooms made of bamboo. Absolutely beautiful, and the most luxurious place that we had the pleasure of staying. (two nights, thankfully!) Watching the hyenas come in to feed at sunset, and learning that you can’t leave anything outside because they will eat it. Even your shoes!
My first concert experience with Seth and May was at the campfire at that same resort. (it won’t be the last time that I see them play!) Lush green countryside in the southern realm of mountains. The heat of the Great Rift Valley and all of its’ grandeur. Circular huts all along the way with thatched roofs and stick and mud walls. Block and mud walled buildings with tin roofs as the new upgrades. Livestock highways, sand, bright red soil. Driving – as a whole new adventure. Dodging all of the obstacles, and learning respect of the drivers and their abilities. Watching the local people enjoying music at support stops, seeing the children chasing soap bubbles while squealing with joy over this new experience. Timothy Young aptly put it that he “measures his days in Ethiopia by the number of near-death experiences he has had.” It is very true.
The runners involved in this venture surprised me. Possibly more than anyone, I knew what they were up against. The mileage was formidable, but that was just the beginning. Compound that with the fact that it’s summer time in Ethiopia. Hot can be an understatement. In addition all runs were at between 4ooo and 8500 feet of elevation, the sun is incredibly intense. I didn’t even want to admit what I thought the temperature was. When asked, I low-balled my response, knowing it was likely ten degrees more. The runners went through sun block almost as much as they did water. Then add the terrain and many other factors, and it’s enough to scare off most any intelligent coach type. Of course, that’s no issue here for these hearty folks.
These ten American runners all had differing levels of fitness and experience. There were those who had never run a marathon distance before, let alone run consecutive thirty-mile days. What I found was that each had prepared themselves in their own way for the task at hand. Each had come to this event knowing that the real emphasis was already completed in having raised the money to build the schools, while attempting to raise the living standard for many people who would be affected by this. Beyond this, they had created for themselves a steely resolve to complete the venture, not even knowing what was in store for them. To create something more for people back home or elsewhere, to follow and learn from. Every mile was unknown, every obstacle a new challenge. All handled with great aplomb. I am very proud for them. I had very real concerns for them at the beginning, and they came through with flying colors, demonstrating what can be done by the individual, and what more can be accomplished as a unified group or team.
Come back tomorrow for Part Two of Dan’s recollection.